2001 : WHAT QUESTIONS HAVE DISAPPEARED?

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Emeritus School Professor, The London School of Economics; Author, Soul Dust
a set of questions that ought to have disappeared; questions that seek reasons for patterns that in reality are due to chance

There is a set of questions that ought to have disappeared, but — given human psychology — probably never will do: questions that seek reasons for patterns that in reality are due to chance.

Why is "one plus twelve" an anagram of "two plus eleven"? Why do the moon and the sun take up exactly the same areas in the sky as seen from Earth? Why did my friend telephone me just as I was going to telephone her? Whose face is it in the clouds?

The truth is that not everything has a reason behind it. We should not assume there is someone or something to be blamed for every pattern that strikes us as significant.

But we have evolved to have what the psychologist Bartlett called an "effort after meaning". We have always done better to find meaning where there was none than to miss meaning where there was.

We're human. When we win the lottery by betting on the numbers of our birthday, the question Why? will spring up, no matter what.

NICHOLAS HUMPHREY is a theoretical psychologist at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences, London School of Economics, and the author ofConsciousness Regained, The Inner Eye, A History of the Mind, and Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation.